Future global trade talks in hand of Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel could help advance stalled global trade talks, U.S. trade chief Rob Portman said Thursday. A key issue holding up talks has been access to European Union farm markets, with Brussels refusing to give more ground until other countries cut import tariffs on industrial goods and services.

Portman, speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum annual meeting, said Germany could act as a counterweight in EU policy to France, which has been particularly defensive in wanting to protect its agriculture markets. "I was very impressed with her willingness to engage," Portman said of Merkel. "I'm hopeful that she can help us to come together with an agreement this year."

The United States, as well as key developing countries such as Brazil and India, are demanding easier access to EU farm markets as part of the Doha round of trade talks. "I had the opportunity to meet with her very briefly last night ... and was very impressed with her willingness to engage on the topic," Portman told reporters.

With just more than three months left before a self-imposed deadline for setting precise formulas for cutting trade barriers, major players at the 149-member WTO appear as far apart as ever on the vexing subject of farm trade, as well as market access for industrial goods and liberalizing service industries.

Little seems to have changed since before December's meeting in Hong Kong, where members failed to agree on those formulas and only agreed a new, April 30 deadline for reaching that point. That leaves little time before a year-end deadline for concluding the Doha negotiations.

Trade negotiations usually take place at ministerial level rather than heads of state, yet Merkel is "engaging directly," Portman said. "We had a good discussion last night, I'm very hopeful that she can be a positive force in bringing us together," he added. "The German position is obviously going to be part of an overall EU position, in that they negotiate through the commission and not the member states, but it will take into account their own economic interests and Germany is the second largest exporter of manufactured products in the world," Portman explained.

Germany has "a strong interest in a successful outcome" to the Doha round, he said, adding: "Global economic growth, for all the major economies, is extremely important", reports the AP. N.U.